UA researchers have developed an innovative app to find people who are missing or have had an accident in remote areas with no mobile coverage, where rescue teams must act fast to save lives. This system is also suitable for emergencies due to earthquakes, floods or forest fires, in which mobile phone infrastructure is often damaged and cannot be used.
The app creator, UA lecturer José Ángel Berná, from the Polytechnic School’s Department of Physics, Systems Engineering and Signal Theory, says: “We have designed an app which can be used on all Smartphones. This app needs no mobile coverage and generates a Wi-Fi signal to ask for help within a range of several kilometres”.
More specifically, “the signal contains the location (coordinates) of the Smartphone user, who is missing or has had an accident, and a short customised message, such as ‘I am injured’, ‘I am disorientated’ or ‘I need help’”.
To detect the signal, Mr Berná also created a portable receiver device, weighing only half a kilo, for rescue teams or mountain shelters. This device has a small antenna and is connected to the rescue teams’ Smartphones.
In the event of an accident, users only have to start the app on their mobile phones, which will regularly send a signal with their location and coordinates for hours or even days, even if they are unconscious.
According to Mr Berná, this innovative system (an operational prototype was developed in early 2016) has already been field-tested by the Spanish Civil Guard’s Special Mountain Rescue Teams, and later by its Maritime Service and the Spanish Sea Rescue Service, with “interesting” results. Thus, during these tests on land and at sea, it was proved that the device can detect the signal generated by the missing person’s Smartphone within a distance of three and two kilometres, respectively, although its coverage could be increased.
Mr Berná states that search and rescue tasks in areas with no mobile coverage “are currently too costly in terms of time and resources”. He points out, however, that this new system makes it possible to “optimise search tasks and reduce tracking time”, which is vital considering that “in many cases, when missing people die, autopsies reveal that they died after several hours and not immediately, but could not be found”.
Another advantage is that no visual contact is needed with those who had the accident, since as soon as a single signal can be detected, the device will give the exact position, even if it is several kilometres away or inside a collapsed building.
There is currently “no system in the world using Wi-Fi signals for Smartphone geolocation. Some devices can detect mobile phone signals from a Smartphone and locate them by triangulation, but they cost about €80,000 and a helicopter is needed”, José Ángel Berná says. He adds, though, that the UA-designed system is more economical, “as, given the cost of the receiver, it could be marketed for a price of approximately €600, if acquired by a significant number of rescue teams”.
Mr Berná explains that the Spanish Mountain Federation’s safety committee and the Civil Guard’s rescue teams think that this technology should be implemented in existing emergency apps with institutional support.
He says: “We have shared information with the Spanish Ministry of Home Affairs on this new technology, so that they consider incorporating it to AlertCops, the Spanish security forces’ alert service for citizens”
The article was published by Universidad de Alicante